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  September/October 2005
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's September 1, 2005, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail mr.green@sierraclub.org.

Chillin' Brilliantly

A while back, Mr. Green unleashed a zero-tolerance rant against air-conditioning, saying, in essence, "If you can't stand the heat, get off the planet." Luckily, a number of readers proposed some kinder, gentler ways to keep cool without being an energy hog. Here's one of the most interesting responses:

Hey Mr. Green,
I've found that if you ask for something that even motivated people balk at doing, you get virtually no behavior change. [Keeping the air conditioning] at 78 degrees in a hot or humid climate is likely only to work for skinny young people who like to be nude or not wear very much.

Here's a set of alternatives that produce both comfort and savings:

  1. Create a cooling breeze at higher thermostat settings with electric fans--or, better yet, ceiling fans.

  2. You don't need to cool what didn't get hot to begin with. Homeowners should:
    1. Be sure they have good ceiling insulation--generally R-19 or better, depending on the area in which they live. [Editor's note: The R-value of insulation indicates its resistance to heat flow. To find the best insulation rating for your region, see the Department of Energy's insulation fact sheet.] If needed, also install two-way reflective heat barriers.

    2. Install good-quality double-pane windows with low-E glazing. Do the same to any glass doors. [Editor's note: Low-emittance (or low-E) coating is a thin, transparent, metal or metallic oxide layer that minimizes heat loss through the glass. For more information, visit energystar.gov or efficientwindows.org.]

  3. Get photovoltaic panels installed. They produce peak electricity at the time of day when air conditioning is most heavily used.

  4. If your house is well insulated, you can get free cooling in many climates by opening your windows at night after the sun sets and closing them again first thing in the morning.

In much hotter places, you can set the air conditioning to 64 in the early morning, when demand and the outside temperature are both relatively low. Then reset to 75 or 78 during the day. If your house is well insulated, your system may not even come back on except for the hottest days, and you'll save a lot of money and electricity.

In short, there are ways to be comfortable in hot places and save electricity. --David

Editor's note: For more energy-saving tips, check out the Department of Energy's consumer guide to space heating and cooling.

Bag Habits

Hey Mr. Green,
I loved your answer about paper versus plastic bags. That's the ticket--the big picture. That'll help us yuppies get out of the tiny picture. --Diane

Hey Diane,

Thanks for the kind words. Seems to me that we continue to delude ourselves on two very different levels: (1) Investing small-picture stuff with far more significance than it has, to the point where recycling becomes a feel-good ritual that helps us avoid facing larger issues, and (2) indulging in denial of the big-picture problem by accepting the myth that environmental problems will be solved by some powerful technological fix, e.g., hydrogen. This fantasy enables people to keep on driving SUVs and wasting energy because they believe the Big Solution to hyperconsumption is just around the corner. It's sort of like St. Augustine saying, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." Speaking of whom, aren't both these modes of behavior really sort of secular religiosity? In one, we carry out the rituals; in the other, we believe in a heavenly kingdom to come! It's surely as much of an opiate as Marx claimed religion was, minus the ethical or mystical possibilities.

Environmentally,
Mr. Green

New Life for Old Bags?

Hey Mr. Green,

In the April issue of Sierra, you stated that you reuse plastic bags. Do you believe, as some do, that they don't get recycled? --Gary

Hey Gary,

Thanks for getting in touch. As I wrote this message, I was amazed to see it grow into an essay of sorts on the anthropology of grocery shopping, or something.

It's certainly good when grocery bags get recycled, but vast numbers of them aren't. In some places, they jam up sewer and water systems; everywhere, they incur disposal costs. That's why some countries have banned their use or charge shoppers a fee for them.

By "recycling," I was thinking more of people who reuse plastic grocery bags for some other purpose: on their next trip to the supermarket, to line their garbage can, to pick up dog excrement, or whatever.

There don't seem to be many places that accept plastic bags for actual recycling. I only know of two in my town, Berkeley, which is famous for its pioneering recycling policies and its zealous supporters of the practice. But check out plasticbagrecycling.org to see if there's a spot near you. Of course, if you have to make a special trip by car to get the bags to a recycler, you'll consume way more fossil fuel than it takes to make the darn things in the first place.

My recommendation is simply to use canvas or string bags. I've had the same canvas bags for almost 25 years. They've gotten ragged and need mending from time to time, but I feel affection for them, like people often do for any familiar, durable, well-wrought old object, be it a tool or a quality doormat. True, the bags' sorry condition sometimes reminds me of my own mortality and impending doom, but hey, it's probably therapeutic to contemplate such matters from time to time. They may be helping save my pathetic soul along with our beleaguered environment.

Stores in my town deduct 5¢ from your grocery bill if you use your own bag. Shopping once a week, I save $2.60 per bag annually, and so, over the course of 25 years, each bag has saved me $65, for a total of $260. Not a bad investment, though I might've done better with Microsoft stock.

It might be fun to make your own bags or use nice wicker baskets to carry your groceries, which would take you full circle in shopping history. The grocery cart itself was the result of a flash of insight by Oklahoma retailer Sylvan Goldman. Back in the 1930s, when shoppers carried groceries in baskets, Goldman had a vision of attaching wheels to them, and voila, the grocery cart. The social implications of this simple invention have been immense.

Finally, an argument could be made that plastic bags are utterly unnecessary since they weren't even introduced in stores until the 1970s.

Environmentally,
Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,
Well, that was quite the missive I received from you last week. The clouds broke in our dissertation when I read of the limited availability to recycle plastic bags in your town. It is quite prevalent here [at grocery stores] in the Redding area. Kind of like the "leave no trace" theory meets Raley's or Holiday Market. So now I know why you didn't address recycling plastic bags at the retail level. I just love answers that make sense, don't you?

Thank you for your time and insightful, entertaining reply! By the way, a fella at the transfer station here told me paper bags can go in with the cardboard. --Gary

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
 

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.


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